Author Archives: Bobbi DePorter

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About Bobbi DePorter

Bobbi DePorter is the President of Quantum Learning and the author of more than a dozen books on learning. Bobbi's development programs have impacted more than 100,000 educators and countless students in all 50 states and around the world.

Excerpts from Excellence in Teaching and Learning: The Quantum Learning System

Excerpts from Excellence in Teaching and Learning: The Quantum Learning System by Barbara K. Given and Bobbi DePorter

8 Keys of Excellence – Principles to Live By
The 8 Keys of Excellence are central to a strong foundation. The 8 Keys are principles to live by: Integrity, Failure Leads to Success, Speak with Good Purpose, This Is It, Commitment, Ownership, Flexibility, and Balance. Each Key is specifically taught, reinforced, and sustained throughout the year and are designed to help students develop positive character traits and a joy in learning. When learning the Keys in the classroom, students tend to support one another’s character development.

Living by the 8 Keys of Excellence involves developing a strong inner core of character. In essence, the Keys define who we are and what we stand for. They guide our behavior and actions. The 8 Keys involve decisions about how to live our life now, but the personal impact of the Keys lasts far into the future.

The 8 Keys of Excellence Curriculum provides lessons to use throughout the year and is available online along with the 8 Keys of Excellence book and 8 Keys wall signs for your classroom.

Class Decision Making
With the 8 Keys of Excellence as the basis of how we operate together, we move to creating standards for the classroom. To get student buy-in, we involve them in the decision-making processof creating the vision and purpose for the class. Teacher/student decision making at the beginning of a new school year is important for several reasons:

  • The decision-making process helps students get acquainted through participation in an authentic, academic task. Each student brings to the process an experiential history of how classes operate and discussion encourages students to share their points of view.
  • Small-group decision making allows all students to participate. Reliance on small-group interaction and volunteer sharing allows hesitant students the safety to share with a few students, while giving those with more confidence opportunities to model active participation.
  • Collaborative decision-making skills can be useful in many areas of students’ lives.
  • Class decision making reinforces district and school rules and regulations by reviewing and clarifying them prior to making decisions on how the class will operate.
  • When students are responsible for establishing their own classroom operational procedures and agreements, they are more apt to take ownership of them.

Accepting someone else’s expectations is a far cry from developing one’s own. Doing something out of a sense of compulsion isn’t at all the same thing as doing it because one knows and feels that it is the right thing to do. The ultimate reason to give children a say is that it can help them to make their own good decisions, to grow into ethical and compassionate people—not because it will make them internalize what we want them to do. (Kohn, 1996, p. 83) . . . Anyone who truly values democratic ideals would presumably want to maximize children’s experiences with choice and negotiation. (Kohn, 1996, p. 85)

  • Perhaps the most important in terms of building community is that student decision making immediately establishes guidelines for how the class will move forward as a socially conscious learning community.

Decision making requires application of critical thinking skills. At the beginning of a semester, however, our primary focus is on the decisions rather than the process. Although secondary to the primary focus of determining how the class will operate for the semester, decision-making skills are taught through modeling and guidance during the process. The decisions inform the learning community about how the class will function. Therefore, the teacher models the decision-making process and refers back to it when expressly teaching decision making later in the semester.

Decisions should lead to some meaningful outcome. That’s why in Quantum Learning we begin the semester with decisions that will impact students’ lives. These have to do with agreements and procedures students will follow as well as clarification of responsibilities that all involved parties agree to assume. 

Class Procedures and Agreements
In QL classrooms, students work with the teacher to determine how the class will operate. Procedures let everyone know what to expect and what action to take. Procedures include whether or not class meetings will be held and, if so, how often; how class members line up (or not) for exiting; where to place homework; where to pick up personal folders (if they are used); where to return them with completed work; how the first several minutes are used for roll call, review of previous work, and announcements. Procedures create routine that provides a sense of stability, control and structure, and makes it possible to start and end class on time.

In developing class agreements, students define what everyone views as the ideal outcome for being together. They consider what they want their class to look like and feel like and create informal agreements to make that happen. For example, students may agree to listen quietly and attentively when another student is talking. Such agreements build respect among students and lead to a cohesive, productive classroom.

Because agreements are determined by the class, all class members have a responsibility to see that the agreements are upheld. Specific to QL is an agreement to personally practice the 8 Keys of Excellence, to acknowledge others for living a Key, and to hold oneself and others accountable when a Key is violated. A simple hand signal or a question such as What Key is challenging you right now? encourage students to conduct a quick self-assessment and correct the behavior. Even if the teacher unintentionally violates a Key and no one points it out, he can say something like I just violated a Key and no one called me on it. What could you have done to make me aware of it in the moment?This action reinforces the fact that the class operates on democratic principles with a leader who sometimes needs to be reminded of the classroom agreements.

Student discussion and input on classroom agreements help instill student ownership. In a San Diego classroom, members of a fourth-grade class proudly shared with a visitor a poster they had created of their class agreements and all the actions they promised to uphold. The teacher said it was rare for students to break an agreement, and that when they did they were quick to acknowledge their mistake, self-correct, and apologize. The teacher felt this was a direct result of the students having worked together to create the agreements.

In creating agreements and procedures, students derive additional benefits as a result of the class decision-making process. They

  • learn how to work collaboratively in a group,
  • learn how to make decisions that impact the group,
  • gain clarity regarding how the class will operate,
  • take ownership of the agreements and procedures, and
  • practice living the 8 Keys of Excellence in the process of creating a socially viable learning community.

School and district policies and procedures also affect the classroom procedures. At the beginning of the semester or year, it’s important to make sure all students are aware of them and agree to follow them. Classroom procedures and agreements need to be aligned with those of the wider education arena.

In addition, school handbooks usually state what students are to do if tardy or absent, how to sign in for the day electronically if student swipe cards are used, what to do if a student needs to be in the hall during class time, how to arrange to stay late for after-school activities, how to get help with homework, what to do if feeling ill, and other information that lets students know what to do in various situations.

How Fear Prevents the Brain from Learning

Four embroidery hoops of different colors with brains stitched on different colored backgrounds

Have you ever felt your body freeze up in response to a stressful situation? Perhaps your heart began to race and your breathing became fast and shallow. That’s your autonomic nervous system at work, and it’s warning your body that there’s danger afoot.

Physiological changes such as the ones above are triggered in part by the vagus nerve, which connects the brain stem to your bodily organs. Nerve impulses move along the vagus nerve from the brain to the body, but they also move from the body to brain.

This last point is particularly important. Often it’s our body that controls our response to fear, not our brain. We can be in an objectively safe setting, but if something sensory triggers the autonomic nervous system, we may feel fearful.

A Tale of Two Vagus Strands

The vagus nerve consists of three strands, all of which respond to fear differently. Let’s look at the first two, which are more primitive and reactive.

Mule deer in the road practicing his "deer in headlights" look.The first vagus strand produces a freeze reaction. If you’ve seen a deer in headlights—either the real thing or a motionless, terrified person—you’ve seen the freeze reaction in action. In the classroom, the freeze reaction may manifest itself as a momentary inability to speak or move, perhaps in response to an impending exam or a comment from a teacher or classmate.

The second vagus strand produces a “fight or flight” response. A student caught up in a fight mentality may run out of the classroom at inappropriate times, talk back to the teacher, or bully other students. Alternately, a student caught up in a flight mentality may avoid eye contact or sit away from other students.

Traumatic Residue

As mentioned, the first two vagus strands can trigger a fear response even when there is no objective threat. An extreme example is a student who suffers abuse at home. The student may feel unsafe and act out at school, even though there is no danger of harm.

Mugs with the "Keep Calm" logo that say "Now Panic and Freak Out."What’s really going on when a student reacts in fear for no apparent reason?

According to Stephen Porges, the neuroscientist behind the polyvagal theory, the amygdala stores traumatic memories as a kind of emotional “residue.” This residue makes the sympathetic nervous system hyper alert. It goes into continual overdrive, trying to detect danger. The student’s rational side is no longer in control. The student is now subject to a complex interaction of brain chemicals and hormones.

Our Hero: The Third Vagus Strand

If you’re wondering what happened to the third vagus strand, it hasn’t been forgotten. When functioning properly, the third vagus strand overrides the false warning signals and tells the body that it’s okay to relax.

A teacher stands at the front of the classroom while students eagerly raise their hands.It’s only in this relaxed state that deep learning occurs. Students must feel safe—emotionally, physically, cognitively, and socially—before they can think critically and creatively. They must have a well-trained third vagus strand.

Classroom Application

This raises the question: what can educators do to create a sense of safety and stimulate higher-order thinking?

Here are a few suggestions from Quantum Learning:

  • Honor students’ unique contributions. Every child has a hidden genius, and that genius naturally surfaces when talents are celebrated and accomplishments are acknowledged. Some students may naturally gravitate toward math, while others gravitate toward reading. Whatever a student excels in, those talents need to be recognized and valued.
  • Establish expectations early in the semester. Students will feel more comfortable when they know how the classroom will operate and how to interact with others. The 8 Keys of Excellence help accomplish this by giving students a common language.
  • Acknowledge students’ efforts regardless of the outcome. Create an environment where it is safe to try and fail. When a student completes a task incorrectly, give them a chance to fix the mistake and provide positive feedback on what the student did do well.
  • Outlaw putdowns and negative self-talk. The 8 Keys of Excellence are helpful here as well. Speak with Good Purpose encourages students to speak kindly and thoughtfully about others and themselves.

This is just a handful of ideas. Quantum Learning includes many more suggestions for encouraging safe learning environments, and we’re sure you have some of your own. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Co-authored by Barbara K. Given, Ph.D., Associate Professor Emerita of Special Education, George Mason University; Author Teaching to the Brain’s Natural Learning Systems.

Images from Hey Paul, Blue Moonbeam, Blue Square Thing, and Audio Luci Store.